Informal work traps millions of women in poverty: let’s back the labour movements that can fight for decent jobs

Leena Patel Gender, Private sector, Women's Economic Empowerment

Low pay, long hours, no sick or maternity pay, unsafe workplaces… That’s the reality for hundreds of millions of women, mostly in the global south – which is why informal workers are going to be at the heart of Oxfam’s drive to value women’s work, says Leena Patel in the third blog in our series around International Women’s Day

women protest
Image from Oxfam’s new website: Valuing Women’s Work (by Rosie Stevens)

For most women in the global south, paid work means informal work, with 89% and 95% of women workers in Africa and South Asia respectively in informal employment. That informal global economy touches almost every sector, from agriculture, to apparel/garments, to domestic work, to construction and mining.

Informal work broadly refers to work done on a casual basis, with minimal protection under national labour laws. That typically means little or no job security, no formal contract and minimal obligations for employers. Because of their invisibility, informal workers are more deeply affected in periods of economic and personal crisis. Their work is overwhelmingly characterised by appalling pay and conditions: long hours; no maternity, sick and holiday pay; unsafe working conditions; restrictions on worker representation and unions; and high levels of violence.

Such work also makes family life harder, taking women (and men) away from their children for long hours and low pay. Lan*, 32, a migrant worker in a factory in Dong Nai province, southern Vietnam, which produces shoes for global fashion brands, says: “I want to work the hours which have better pay, so I can have my children with me and I can raise them well with good educations. I want my children to be close to their parents so they can have a better life.”

Yet, the chances for workers like Lan – and the estimated 740 million women informal workers globally – of securing decent work and a better family life can seem slim. Despite the vital contribution of women informal workers to local and global food systems and supply chains, governments and companies continue to neglect the sector, often not counting informal women workers in data and statistics and not considering them as employees in supply chains.

How the pandemic has cut wages and workers’ rights even further

The pandemic has made the situation even worse for informal women workers, who have lost pay and rights: 28% and 56% of workers in Bangladesh and Cambodia respectively said that workers’ rights had worsened since the pandemic.

In the height of the pandemic in Bangladesh, 1 million garment sector workers were sent home without pay or lost their jobs – in many cases for work done – as fashion brands cancelled £2.4billion worth of orders. On opening up, to make up for losses, factory owners agreed to cheaper contracts with fashion labels, which resulted in forced wage cuts, which workers had to agree to as many had taken out survival loans during the pandemic, and others faced intimidation and threats from supervisors and factory owners.

Even before the pandemic, it took disasters such as the Rana Plaza and prolonged large-scale organised protests led by unions to push the bar higher on women workers’ rights in places such as Bangladesh.

Pre- and post-pandemic, unions have been critical in the fight for workers’ rights, including, women workers. But Covid-19 is being used as a pretext by government and private sector to silence unions, labour activists and workers. Since the pandemic, more than 4,870 unionised workers and labour activists have been targeted and dismissed from their jobs by private sector companies in nine factories across India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Cambodia.

We’re not free until we’re all free

In 1908, 15,000 women workers marched through New York demanding shorter working hours, better pay and the right to vote. Since then, women’s and labour movements have made huge strides but progress on women workers’ rights has largely been confined to women in the formal economy. Whilst strides have also been made in the global north, there have been trends, including in the UK, to informalisation – in particular with the rise in zero-hour contracts and the gig economy, largely affecting black, migrant and people and women of colour; 35% of social care workers in the UK are on zero-hour contracts.

At Oxfam, we want to see millions of informal women workers and unpaid carers – black, indigenous, women of colour, migrant women and gender-diverse and non-binary people – get safe, secure, decent and dignified employment. We want the labour of women informal workers and unpaid carers from low-income households in the global south – which has, for too long, subsidised soaring profits of multi-national companies and middle- and high- income households – to finally be rewarded properly. This must include a living income; sick and maternity pay; care infrastructure; on-site crèches; safe workplace facilities such as safe, women-friendly toilets and menstrual hygiene management facilities; worker representation and rights, such as a right to unionise; workplaces and cultures that take a zero-tolerance approach to gender-based violence; and universal social protection.

Women informal workers, unite!

History has taught us that wins on women’s rights have come about because of labour and women’s movements: it was free Black women known as The Washerwomen of Jackson who formed Mississippi’s first union, inspiring others to follow suit; and it was India’s Self-Employed Women’s Association which recognised and unionised home-based workers.  

In Bangladesh in 2015, domestic workers won new rights to access welfare benefits, such as sick pay and paid maternity, leave for the first time.  And in South Africa in 2019, the Domestic Workers Rising Platform won a legal victory that secured improved insurance at work for 1.1 million domestic workers, which means they can now finally claim compensation for occupational injuries.

At Oxfam, we are proud to have contributed to women’s and labour movements  which have brought about change in workers’ lives. We believe in the power of women’s and labour movements. That’s why, through our Valuing Women’s Work (VWW) strategy, we will support and work with local and global women’s and labour movements – who remain severely underfunded (only 1% of gender-focussed aid goes to women’s movements), are constrained by negative gender norms to organise and are met with backlash, including, violence.

As part of the VWW strategy, we intend to co-create safe, feminist, anti-racist and decolonised spaces for mutual learning and sharing between diverse women’s rights organisations (WROs), unions, activists and feminist economists, so that the voices of marginalised women and informal workers get heard; we will provide flexible funding to WROs; and we will support women’s unions, associations and organisations to get a seat at government policy tables to drive change, claim rights and redefine work.

We want to use our power to push governments and companies to recognise, value and invest in all work carried out by women – paid or unpaid, contracted or not. In doing so, we will listen and be led by local and global women’s and labour movements to make sure every woman informal worker is in decent work and has a dignified life where she can thrive, not just survive.


Leena Patel

Leena Patel is Senior Programmes Advisor, Valuing Women’s Work, at Oxfam GB

You can find out more about Oxfam’s vision in our new website about Valuing Women’s Work. Thanks to the players of the People’s Postcode Lottery for their support with this work.

Do also check out the other blogs for International Women’s Day on our Views and Voices site for development professionals, subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest posts and follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn. *Names may be changed to preserve anonymity